Common Field Agriculture as a Cultural Landscape of Latin America: Development and History in the Geographical Customs of Resource Use

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. Common field agriculture is a form of community-based landscape use. This ethnogeographic custom coordinates the production of crops and livestock grazing in managed fallow among the designated sectors of a community. Areas of cropping and communal grazing and resource collection are spatially separate and sequenced temporally. A number of indigenous peasant communities utilize common field agriculture (suyu, surt'i) in the tropical mountain landscapes of Peru and Bolivia. Presumably pre-European, it was recast under Spanish colonialism for tribute payments and food supply. Recent neoliberal development and conservation, common to Latin America, could either imperil or give incentive to this landscape custom. Uncoordinated intensification of land use is the chief threat. Benefits, both environmental and social, include the management of soils, vegetation, and crop pest and disease in Andean grass-shrub fallows; the reduction of labor-time demands in land use; and the bolstering of local food supply. Common field agriculture is of considerable promise to policymaking and planning. Program development would need to account for its historical and present-day interaction, including the role of local gender-related dynamics, with extralocal forces that presently include the predominant policies of land privatization and resource conservation.


In July 1995 the Peruvian government of Alberto Fujimori decreed a national "land law." Its official title was the "Law of private investment to promote the development of economic activities in the lands of the national territory and in the campesino and indigenous communities" (Decree Law 26505). Like many neoliberal policies of Peru and other countries of Latin America, the 1995 land law was designed to stimulate and reward a kind of development through private sector investment (Escobar 1995; Zimmerer 2000c). The new decree fully eclipses the country's 1969 agrarian reform of General Juan Velasco that had sought, without much notable success, to promote an equitable type of rural development through state-sponsored programs of cooperative and communal forms of land ownership that were ill-conceived and poorly implemented. To date, the government's implementation of the new land law is being felt slowly in the Andean countryside, at least compared to its immediate impact on the high-value farmland of the coastal valleys. Nevertheless, the implication of Peru's new land law for mountain land use and resources is a subject of intense concern for millions of its citizens as well as their farmer, peasant, and indigenous organizations (Manrique 1996).

Of special interest is how the national land law of Peru, and others like it in Bolivia and Ecuador, will affect the community-based customs of resource use in the indigenous peasant communities of the Andes. Common field or "sectoral fallow" agriculture is one such custom. It offers a purposefully designed combination of the farming of individual fields with a communal use of grazing and resource commons. This style of working rural landscapes in coordinated units may well reach a new crossroads given the ongoing changes in the legal, economic, and political frameworks of the Andean countryside and landownership rights. The present study evaluates the various sociospatial and environmental workings of common field agriculture with special attention to historical and development changes. By framing it as a cultural landscape, this study puts emphasis on the entwining of the biogeophysical functions and human-environment change dynamics of common field agriculture. Change processes that already have taken place are likely to become built upon further and thus entangle the customs of common field agriculture in even more complex ways with the growing weight of Peru's new land law. These change processes include community-level institutions and land use in addition to intracommunity dynamics, particularly the role of gender-related differences, and multicommunity relations in the guise of crucial informal coordination. …


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